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THE REAL JAMAICA:

A journey beyond the all-inclusives

All images and drone videos by Ross Borden.

Most Westerners go to Jamaica and never leave the walls of their hotel. Don’t be like them.

Ihad always been curious about going to Jamaica. I knew there was next-level nature and adventure, incredible food, a legendary music and party scene, and a culture I had never explored, but it seemed like every time I talked to someone who was just back from a trip to Jamaica they couldn’t answer a single question about any of that.

They would talk instead about the resort, the golf, the ease of all-inclusive food and drinks…the fucking ‘swim-up’ bar. I’d rather stay at home than go to a Sandals-type resort, so, dissatisfied with the options of all-inclusive wackness, I did some research and found a tiny town called Port Antonio.

 

Port Antonio

I immediately liked what I saw on Google Maps.

 

Where the all-inclusives and big resorts are

Where I stayed

Most of the all-inclusives are clustered on the western side of the island in areas like Montego Bay and Negril. Port Antonio is located in the state of Portland on the northeastern coast. Compared to the west, it’s super underdeveloped and the region is wrapped in Blue and John Crow Mountains National Park.

I googled images of the area, booked two flights, and it was ON — time to explore the real Jamaica.

This is what I did, and I’d definitely recommend it to anyone who is planning a trip to the country.

 

Go rural

Lots of people seem to think Jamaica is super dangerous. It’s not. Port Antonio is a tiny town and tightly-knit community. We felt welcomed and super comfortable walking around, dropping into random bars and food spots, and hitching rides in and out of town with locals.

 

Stay at Geejam

Jamaica might be full of all-inclusives, but that’s not your only option. There are dope boutique resorts (with varying levels of swankiness) that actually encourage you to leave the hotel and go explore the incredible nature, food, music, and parties enjoyed by local Jamaicans on a daily basis.

We checked out two places, Geejam and Trident, both in Port Antonio. My favorite was Geejam — it’s a sexy little boutique hotel built into the mountainside. You’re literally living in the rainforest — each room its own bungalow with plenty of privacy, including your own hot tub.

 

 

The beach is only a five-minute walk down the stairs, and Geejam has private access to a gorgeous stretch of sand with cabanas and kayaks.

Trident is also cool, but it has a completely different vibe. More swanky for sure, but less character. Both had incredible food, although I found it pricey.

 

Seek out pristine nature experiences

There’s tons of incredible nature to explore around Port Antonio. Head towards Blue Mountains National Park and you’ll find yourself on a beautiful coastal road with tons of stops along the way. The “Blue Lagoon” (yes, that Blue Lagoon) is a must stop.

 

 

At the end of the road you’ll find Reach Falls:

 

 

Reach Falls is an incredible spot for hanging out, cliff jumping, and exploring caves.

 

Hit up the jerk BBQ spots in Boston

Everyone knows they should eat lots of jerk chicken in Jamaica, but you might not know that ‘jerk’ cuisine in general was born in this tiny town on the eastern highway 20 minutes outside of Port Antonio.

It’s a bit intimidating rolling up to this spot where 4-5 different crews cook jerk pork, chicken, steak, and even lobster over open fire pits, but dive in and make sure to try a bunch of different meats from the various crews.

You can buy it in 1/4, ½, or 1 lb portions, served on wax paper, and don’t forget to try the different spicy jerk sauces. Also, buy a bottle of fresh squeezed juice from the dude across the alley to wash it down and put out the fire on your taste buds. Everyone here, in classic Jamaican style, was super friendly.
 

Stop for a drink at Cliff Hanger bar

We stumbled upon this random hotel and bar on the way home from Reach Falls. Cliff Hanger is also right on the eastern highway and, as you might imagine, it’s built on the edge of a huge cliff overlooking the ocean. I would highly recommend stopping for some drinks and food here. It’s one of the coolest bars I’ve ever been to, and we really enjoyed chatting with its owner, an interesting and friendly dude named Brett Hana.

 

Go river rafting

This 3-hour adventure would be more aptly named “bamboo float,” since the super gentle river you go down is only a few feet deep and the trip is more about enjoying remote nature, while sipping on ice cold Red Stripes and puffing on the occasional spliff, than any sort of hard hitting raft trip.

Still, this is an awesome activity that you shouldn’t miss.

 

 

You float down a wide, slow-moving river through miles of pristine rainforest. Each bamboo raft has its own “captain” and seats only two…definitely romantic for a couple, and also perfect for young families.

 

Catch every music event you can

The only drawback to Port Antonio is that there’s not much going on at night. It’s a small town and therefore the music and nightlife scene is pretty limited. That said, most nights you can catch awesome live music from “Mento Madness” or “The Jolly Boys” at Geejam, and you can hear reggae/Caribbean beats including classic Jamaican instruments like the rumba box.

If you’re in the mood for something a little more refined, you can listen to Mike’s All-star Jazz Band (reggae-jazz fusion) while you’re having dinner at Trident.

 

Get a full tour of Geejam’s recording studio

Before Geejam was a hotel, it was the private home and hidden recording studio of Jon Baker — a UK music man turned hotelier. Jon is the ex-partner of Chris Blackwell of Island Records, who brought Bob Marley to the world and owns another resort in Jamaica called Golden Eye. Not only does this recording studio have a lot of history, but it’s still frequented by artists like Katy Perry, Rihanna, and Diplo.

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